During football season, Jeff Rutledge of the New York Giants shares many of the same problems held by most of the National Football League's backup quarterbacks: the frustration of being No. 2, the endless waiting on the bench and the feeling that all the hard work and dedication may never pay off.
But during the off-season, Rutledge faces something quite different. Something that at times can be as challenging as life in the NFL. And it sounds like this:
\o7 "Coach, let me pitch!"
"Coach, I wanna bat!"
"Cooooach! I hafta go to the bathroom\f7 . . . \o7 now!" \f7 Rutledge coaches the Giants, a 13-member T-ball team in Mission Viejo. Yes, T-ball. Little League for the littlest. A comic joy for those who watch, an energy outlet for those who play.
So why does Rutledge coach? For fame? Recognition? A love of baby-sitting?
"I like kids," he said. "Plus, my son Brooks plays T-ball."
Simple reasons for an often-complicated situation. Step into Rutledge's shoes and watch the mini-players play.
There's Kevin McCoy, the only one with a batting glove--a red, white and blue special he found on the street.
There's Brooks Rutledge. He's the team's most coordinated player.
There's Ryan O'Connell. At 3-feet 8-inches, he is almost lost in the blue jacket that hangs over his knees.
And there's Will Furtrelle, wearing orange and turquoise flower-print clammers with lime green high-tops. His father, wearing a gray three-piece suit, watches from the side.
Yes, they're a lively bunch, like a pack of puppies chasing a bouncing ball.
"Sometimes it tries your patience, I admit it," said Rutledge, who volunteered for the job in February after returning to Orange County for the off-season. "You know they're not going to do what you want them to do all the time."
This isn't to say Rutledge becomes dictatorial on the T-ball field, which is close to his Mission Viejo hillside home. He's just a father trying to guide a few 5- and 6-year-old kids toward fun and sportsmanship.
"At our first meeting, the parents asked me how I planned to discipline the kids," Rutledge said. "I told them the same way I discipline my own. Very carefully."
Rutledge's rules are simple. Keep your eyes on the ball and your hands to yourself. And try to do the job your position calls for.
But in a game in which no score is kept, no one pitches and players rotate positions every inning, rules and restrictions are often lost to instant pandemonium.
During practice, Rutledge tells the outfielders to concentrate on where they'll throw the ball once a hit is made. Kevin approaches the plate, tightens his glove and swings at the ball resting on the tee.
It's a high fly to right. Ryan lifts his glove in the air, yards away from the ball's landing spot. It bounces twice, then again off Ryan's shoes. He grabs it, and panic-stricken, looks at Rutledge for direction. Kevin has rounded first, though slowed by a slip and tumble off the cardboard square that serves as first base.
"Throw it, Ryan," Rutledge said. "Throw it to second."
Ryan pulls his arm back and hurls it toward second. The ball sticks in his hand. He pulls back again, this time only to drop it behind him. The infield is screaming as Kevin heads for third. Finally, another player grabs the ball and hurls it home.
Rutledge catches it and tags Kevin out.
"You're OUT," he yells. Kevin disagrees, as do the batters behind him. The chant begins.
"Safe . . . safe . . . safe."
The fielders join in, then some start jumping up and down, screeching and howling with 6-year-old glee.
Rutledge ends the chaos by calling everyone to the plate for a pep talk. The Giants' next game is in two days, and Rutledge reminds everyone (twice) to be at the park at 5 p.m.
Practice is over, and most of the kids run toward their parents, waiting beside their vans and station wagons. Ryan, standing at home plate, waves to his father over by first.
Ryan picks up a ball and throws it as hard as he can. The ball lands just yards in front of first, and he and his father smile proudly.
"Coach is real great 'cause he teaches all we need to know about baseball," Ryan said. "I love him, too."
Said Rutledge: "Some of these kids are really hyper. Some just stare out to the sky--you've got to put a fire under them. But you've got to praise the kids all the time. Whether they miss the ball or not. It's not like they're in pros."
Rutledge should know.